Is it possible to tell an old-fashioned fighting-robot story? By that, I mean, does the presence of brawling ‘bots automatically make it a sci-fi action film, or can there be a texture of nostalgia to a movie like Hugh Jackman’s Real Steel, which opens Oct. 7?

Jackman and Shawn Levy (director of the Night at the Museum movies) aspired more toward yesteryear than the future, though their movie about a father and son caught up in a robo-boxing tournament takes place a few years ahead of present day.

The new trailer shows a little of what they were going for: Dust, county fairs, early morning training, and a coming of age for both father and son. Also, it has lots of robots bashing each other apart. “People really think it’s going to be about the robots,” says Levy. “They think the robot is going to be central and sentient, right? They’re expecting him to talk.”

But this mechanical hero is not Optimus Prime, the director says. Instead of being a free-thinking entity, Atom — the scrapped machine they refurbish when all hope seems lost — is remote-controlled, which puts the focus on the pair who control him: Hugh Jackman’s deadbeat dad, a boxer put out of work by the exploding (literally) popularity of metal-on-metal fisticuffs, and the young kid he abandoned long ago (Dakota Goyo).

Levy wanted the trailer to highlight, “the father-son drama, the emotion, the kind of rousing sports movie, the Americana of it. We are very much the robo-boxing movie, but that’s one piece of a broader spectrum.”

According to the director, Jackman plays “an a—hole,” and surprisingly, Jackman nods at the description. “He abandoned his son at birth, and he hasn’t seen him from then until now,” Jackman says. “He’s struggling. He’s a human boxer in a world where human boxing is obsolete. He’s bitter about how everything has moved on. He’s really struggling to make a living for himself.”

“He’s not a likable dude,” Levy piles on.

“He owes money to a lot of people. And he’s disappointed a lot of people,” Jackman adds. “He’s trying to survive, but there’s a little bit of con man in him. He’s desperate. He’s losing. He’s treading water and going under.”

Whoa, whoa, hold on, fellas. This guy is supposed to make the robots beat up each other, not beat up on himself. Levy says the movie can only get away with such a selfish, obnoxious main character because of Jackman’s movie-star charm: “I can get away with a–hole behavior to an extreme that I couldn’t with other actors, actors I won’t name.”

Come on, Shawn — name them!

“You can think about it, and hypothesize,” Levy says. “Hugh brings such an inherent likability in his DNA that you could have his character be really abrasive. Whereas another actor, an a–hole actor, playing a real a–hole, just doesn’t work.”

Okay, Levy, just admit it: you’re talking about Steve Carell.

The director laughs and throws up his hands. “I promised Steve I wouldn’t go public. But… your words not mine.”*

*Footnote: For the literal-minded, he’s joking about Carell, who worked with him on Date Night and is widely considered to be one of the nicest humans in show business.**

**Or is he …?

For more, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican.

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